Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Exclusive Interview With Tom Friedman (Part II)

This is the second and final segment of my exclusive interview with New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. You can access the first part (focusing on the recent Israel/Lebanon conflict) online here. Without further delay....

DS: Now, you're a leading member of the so-called "liberal hawk" wing of the Democratic punditry. That wing has been severely damaged--I consider myself a part of it too--severely damaged by the Iraq war. First, can they regain their credibility, or should they? Should they say "we made a mistake, and we need to look to a new direction?"

TF: This is a really complicated issue. You certainly rightly identified me where I would see myself and where I would see my colleagues. And I supported the Iraq war--it was always a struggle for me, and it was not an easy call. But for me, the issue was not about WMD. It was about what I call PMD--people of mass destruction. And the fact that, to me, the biggest issue that open societies face today, or the biggest threat that open societies face today, is this kind of nihilistic, violent, Islamic radicalism, that has been attacking open societies in any number of ways.


For so many people, the Iraq war is just about loving Bush or hating Bush. There were people not really thinking about the war in and of itself at all--some people were, definitely--but for many people it was just "I'm for the war because Bush is for the war, and I'm a Republican," or "I'm against the war because I hate Bush." And what I tried to do in approaching the war, is take my own personal politics and put it on the shelf. And try to think of this whole issue of terrorism on a blank piece of paper. So from that perspective, then, how did I get from there to the Iraq war?

Two things really shaped my thinking. The first is that I believe that we are now facing the third great totalitarian challenge to open societies. The first great totalitarian challenge to open societies was from Soviet communism, which attempted to use the engine of the Soviet Union to impose the reign of the perfect class--the working class (as Marxist/Leninist's saw it). The second great challenge to open societies was from Nazi fascism, which attempted to use the engine of the Third Reich to impose the reign of the perfect race--the Aryan race. What I believe we're seeing with Bin Laden, al-Qaeda, all these movements--some are connected, some disconnected, some spontaneous, some state-encouraged--is the third great totalitarian challenge to open societies. And these people are attempting to use the engine of globalization (in many ways) to impose the reign of what they see as the perfect faith--we'll call it political Islam.


In the Islamofascist--Islamo-totalitarians, call them what you will--the Bin Ladenites, we're facing people who hate us more than they love life. They hate us more than they love their own kids. They are ready to blow themselves up before we can ever deter them. That's bad enough. But what makes it an even more dangerous phenomenon is that these are people who are using instruments from our daily life: the tennis shoe, the shampoo bottle, the backpack, the automobile, the cell phone, the airplane. They are using instruments from our daily life to attack the very essential thing that keeps an open society open. And what is that? That's trust. I trusted that when you came over to my house, you weren't wearing bomb-laden tennis shoes--I don't have a metal detector at my door. At Carleton, the faculty trusts that when you walk into a class with a backpack it isn't carrying dynamite. When you fly on Northwest Airlines to Carleton--before these past couple of weeks--they trusted that if you had shampoo in your backpack, it wasn't actually disguised nitroglycerin. Trust, trust is the essential feature that keeps an open society open.... Because there aren't enough police to police every opening in an open society. So we have to build it on trust....

One more 9/11, David, and that's the end of the open society as we know it. Because if you think we have lack of trust now in a few public buildings and an airport, imagine if there is another 9/11 or something like it. So that's why I take this threat that these violent Islamic radicals pose as an enormous danger to open society. So that's one side of this argument.

The second side of my argument about Iraq is that we treated the Arab world for the last 50 years as a collection of big gas stations. That's really how we Americans viewed the Arab world. And we basically said the following to them: "You know what guys? You can do whatever you want out back. Just keep the pump open, the price low, and be nice to the Jews. Don't hassle Israel too much. Just keep the pump open, the price low, and be nice to Israel, and you can do whatever you want out back. You can treat your women, however you want. You can repress your citizens, deprive them of basic civil rights, freedom of speech, whatever you want. You print whatever lies you want, about us, or infidels, in your newspapers, no problem. And you can preach whatever intolerance you like from Mosques and textbooks; you can do whatever you want, out back. Just keep the price low, the pump open, and be nice to the Israelis."

Well it's my view, David, that on 9/11 we got hit with the distilled essence of everything going on out back. So to me, that's a progressive problem. That's not just a Bush problem, not just a conservative problem, that's something liberals needed to be thinking about, which is how do we change the context of what's going on out back. And how to we do it in a collaborative way?

Now if you know anything about my writing you know I was never part of the "let's invade Iraq group." I didn't start thinking about--I'm saying before the issue came up. You know there's a whole group of Republicans who have been pressing this for years, basically. I only came to this issue when the President put it on the table. If you actually did a LexusNexus of my column you'd discover I don't think--I may have written about Iraq twice in all the years before this came up. So it's not an issue that animated me. But after 9/11, and when this issue came up, my view was very simple: Bush was going to launch this war, whether I was for it or against it. But my view was, if done right, this could be the right war if done the right way.... To try and change the context of what was going on out back. Why did I think that's important; and why do I still think that's important? I have many regrets about how the war was executed, but I know why I supported this, and those reasons haven't gone away.

....If you look at the Arab world today, there isn't a single, really positive example--save for Dubai now, which has really emerged and has had a huge impact--of a modern, decent, liberalizing, progressive Arab state. And my argument was that if we could collaborate and cooperate and partner with Iraqis, to build that model, in the heart of the Arab Muslim world, that that could be a huge radiating force, that creates the space to get us back, to--that creates the context not only to change what's going on out back, but also a space where the good guys can argue against the bad guys.... We can put up fences, we can have good intelligence, but ultimately, the only ones who can defeat that are Arabs and Muslims themselves....

I still feel that today. People come up to me now, because I've written an article basically saying Iraq's not working, and they say "Oh, thank you. Thank you for finally seeing the light." And my attitude is rather hostile to those people. Because I don’t think these people understood the problem from the beginning, and I don't want their thank you now. I feel terrible about Iraq. But I don't feel terrible because I'm going to be seen as someone who was on the wrong side of the war. I feel terrible first of all for all the casualties, and the incredible human devastation--American and Iraqi. But what I really feel terrible about, David, is this project. I thought it was really important. I still think it's important. And I have no apologies to make about thinking it's important. It's still important. I still hope we can salvage something. And so, I don't want anyone to say "Thank you for seeing the light." I haven't seen any light at all. All I've seen is darkness. Because if this project fails, only bad things will come of it for the world that my girls are going to grow up in. And that's for me what this was all about....

DS: So how can this wing restore its credibility? How can we bring this vision back to the mainstream when it seems very much on the defensive in the Democratic Party at the moment.

TF: Well it's a very good question. One is not to be on the defensive. And I'm not. I know what I believed, I know why I believed it. I'm terribly disappointed [but]....

....The purposes were right and noble, in my view. The performance was abysmal. One has to distinguish those two things, number one. Number two, don't drop out of the debate. We're not out of Iraq. We're still in the middle, now, of a terrible mess. We can't abdicate the argument now, either to Republicans, or to liberals who just want to wash their hands of it and walk away. Now we have to think through how we minimize the damage and see what we can salvage, what I call Plan B. And I don't know what Plan B is yet. I'm spending a lot of time trying to think that through. But the most important that liberal hawks have to do is stay engaged in the debate. And keep pitching ideas, and stay true to the argument that ultimately our best defense in the war on terrorism is not a wall, it's not more airport guards, it's not building a moat around America, it's trying to partner with progressives in other parts of the world to build the kind of societies will be able to constrain and take on these forces. You can say that's so quixotic, but I don't see any other option.

DS: In a recent column a lot of people were interpreting what you said as that it's time to start withdrawing [from Iraq]. Is that true, that now is the time to start withdrawing?

TF: No. I was quite clear, I thought, with what I said. One of the things, when you're a columnist for the New York Times, everyone wants to own you. And if they can't own you, they want to destroy you. That is, they want to use your argument for one thing or the other. And what I was basically saying in that piece was: I've been really focused on Plan A, trying to make Plan A work up until now. Plan A is not working. We have to start thinking about Plan B. What I said was: here [are] some first, tentative thoughts, on what are some of the elements of Plan B. And one element, it seems to me, is first of all, one last push, as I've said for a Bosnia-like peace conference, to still see if we can salvage this....

....This isn't about training the army, that's non-sense. Who's training the insurgents? Obviously nobody. They seem to be doing just fine without any training. This isn't about the way, it's about the will. And so you're not going to have an effective army in Iraq unless you have an underlying political consensus. It may be that that's impossible now; it's too late. But the first thing I was saying in that column is that we have to make one last push to try.

Now the other point I was making, and this is where it gets complicated, is that in order to get the parties to take seriously that effort, you probably have to set a date to withdraw. Because one of the problems is that they are ready to let us hold the dike forever. We're there kind of holding the dike.... So the reason I introduced the withdrawal point was to say: if you want to have a serious peace conference there, where really all the parties have a really honest dialogue, it may be that we have to set a date to withdraw. And that's as far as I've gone yet. I may go farther, next week, David, but that was only my preliminary thinking right now. I think this is such a serious issue that one of the things I'm trying to avoid as a columnist is to be for this plan, and then that plan, and then that plan, and then that plan, and then that plan....

DS: I think that clarifies things a lot, actually. Now, we can talk about how liberal hawks made lots of mistakes and made miscalculations and whatnot, but I think we can agree that ultimately it's on Bush's head. Now, he couldn't think of a single mistake he made when he was asked in the debates; I think you can think of a few. So what are the big mistakes the Bush administration [has made here]?

TF: Well what I find so breathtakingly dishonest about Bush and Cheney--and I wrote a column about this after the whole Ned Lamont victory over Lieberman, because as you recall Lamont defeated Lieberman in the primary then Cheney came out and said, "Well, this shows that the Democrats don't really understand the war on terrorism, the titanic struggle we're in." He used it as a way to hit on the Democrats. And my response to that was: "Oh really? Oh really? Democrats don't understand what a titanic struggle we're in with these forces of violent radical Islam?" Well if that's so, Mr. Cheney, then tell me something: If we're in such a titanic struggle with violent political Islam, why is it that you fought the war in Iraq with the Rumsfeld doctrine of just enough troops to lose, and not the Powell doctrine of overwhelming force? .... And by the way, if we're in such a titanic struggle, the struggle of our lives, with violent political Islam, why do you keep using it as a wedge issue in domestic politics? Would Roosevelt have done that? How do you think we're going to win this titanic struggle with a divided country? You think you're going to win with 50.1% of America? So please. Give me a break. You are just a fraud. This is just a fraud. You keep telling me we're in a titanic struggle. Yet Ned Lamont doesn’t command our troops. Even Joe Lieberman doesn't control our energy policy. You guys are the ones with all the levers of power. You have the House, the Senate, the White House, and the Supreme Court. You could have fought this war either seriously or unseriously. And you have chosen to fight it unseriously.... That's completely fraudulent. And history, ultimately, will be very unkind to these people. It will catch that fraud.

DS: Final thing since we're almost out of time. If you have one piece of advice toward how the US can restore its position in the world, gain back the trust that we've lost and the goodwill that we've sacrificed, what can we do to make up for the egregious mistakes of the past six years?

TF: Well, it's going to take a new administration. Things are broken between this administration and the world. George Bush is the most hated President in my lifetime and Dick Cheney is the most hated Vice President. More than Richard Nixon. And it is broken between them and the world. But how do you salvage it? Well, first of all we've got to find a way to salvage something out of Iraq. I don't know what it is, but...., and to reduce our presence there as best we can.

Secondly, you can't come to the world and say there's a war on terrorism, and you're either with us or against us, but on the issue of global warming, climate change, environment, "oh sorry, we're driving our SUVs. Forget about Kyoto." I think nothing would begin to restore some of our credibility with a big part of the world--particularly the European world--than having a different energy policy at home. And taking seriously an issue that animates many, many people around the world. I think having a different approach to the WTO and that issue of trade would be a hugely important thing. I think that having a much more forward-leaning approach to solving the Arab/Israeli conflict would go a long way to doing that.

And lastly, one thing I learned as a journalist is that--you know, I'm a little Jewish guy from Minneapolis, but I've operated in the Arab world for 30 years. And as you know, I do it by getting in people's face. I don't write some nice-y nice column that is never critical of people. But one thing I've always prided myself on, to me it's the most important survival mechanism for any journalist, is that you have to be a good listener. Being a good listener is really important. And we've gotten away from being good listeners in this administration in particular. Listening is a sign of respect. It's amazing what happens when you just listen to people. What they'll allow you to say to them....

We've also really, in this war on terrorism...gone from a country that exported hope, that was seen as the country most important to the world in exporting hope, in the feeling that tomorrow can be better than yesterday and that the future can bury the past, to a country that exports fear. When you export fear, you import everyone else's fears. And we need to get back to being the America that exports hope, not fear.


cakreiz said...

Fantastic interview, David. Very nicely done.

Anonymous said...

I don't know much more about TF's ideas for an effective strategy to defeat Islamic Jihadists than before I read his interview. I doubt that he knows our enenmy despite all of his learning and experience. More 9/11s are inevitable until the entire western world unites and defends itself. Either Iran has a neuclear bomb, or one is only a long plane ride from N Korea. The UN is dysfunctional. What does TF suggest we do before his worst fear of losing our open society comes to pass?

SteveR said...

Yes, David, a fantastic interview indeed. Thanks, this is a great service and contribution to the public discourse, and thanks to TF as well.

I agree with much of what TF says, but not all (BTW, I'm a lifelong Democrat.) In particular, I think he's a bit too hard on the Bush administration and too easy on the World (as in the concept of "alienating the rest of the world".) Sometimes the World is upside-down and you have to stick with your own moral compass - for example, the int'l reaction to Israel bombing Osirik in 1981 - the rest of the World was upside-down on that one, but many came to appreciate Israel's actions in 1990/91 with Desert Storm.

I think TF is an excellent writer and a true standout among the MSM in his clear thinking and forward-looking ideas. I see from your interview that he speaks informally as well as he writes - amazing.

I'm really glad you had this terrific opportunity to interview him. Your inteview made me feel, "gee, I wish TF lived next door to me, so I could have the pleasure of talking to him about great issues of the day" ... actually, I live in Arnold, MD not far from you -- maybe I'll see you guys in Starbucks in Rockville one day!

Best regards,

SteveR said...

David, in my comment I said,

"...the rest of the World was upside-down on that one, but many came to appreciate Israel's actions in 1990/91 with Desert Storm. "

I meant to say something like, "... but years later, with Desert Storm, many came to appreciate Israel's earlier action."